Patolli or patole, one of the oldest games in North America, was a game of strategy and luck. Conquistadors reported that Montezuma enjoyed watching his nobles play the game. Patolli was played by a wide range of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures and known all over Mesoamerica. The ancient Mayans also played a version of patolli.
Patolli is a race/war game with a heavy gambling focus. Players would meet and inspect the items each other had available to gamble. They bet blankets, plants, precious stones, gold jewelry, food or just about anything including in extreme cases, their homes, their family, or their own freedom. Agreeing to play was not a casual affair as the winner of the game could win quite a bit. The ideal number of items to bet is six, though any number would is okay as long as each player agreed and each had the same amount, the reason being that each player has six markers that will travel through the game board. As each marker successfully completes the lap around the board, the opponent is required to hand over ownership of an item.
The Spanish priests forbade the game during the Spanish conquest of Mexico, possibly due to people selling themselves and their families into slavery over it. They were even known to have burned the hands of people caught playing the game.
Once an agreement is made to play, the players prepare themselves by invoking the god of games, Macuilxochitl. The god Macuilxochitl is considered to be participating in the game. Players are required to give Macuilxochitl an item if a toss of the beans results in all blank sides showing. A space is reserved above the game board for these items. The winner of the round will receive the treasure located in this space as a gift from Macuilxochitl.
The object of the game is for a player to win all of the opponent’s treasure by moving six game pieces through the specified squares. To do this, the players may need to play more than one round of the game. Completing a round means that a player gets all of the six game markers from the starting position to the ending square position on the game board before the other player.
Five or six black beans were used as dice. Dice were also used. The game pieces were six red and six blue pebbles; each player controlled one color. Beans, kernels of maize, or even pieces of jade could also be used instead of pebbles.
In order to get one of the markers onto the board, the player tosses five specially prepared black beans on the game area. Each black bean has one side marked with a hole. In order to get on the game board, one black bean would have to land with the hole face up and all the others face down (a score of one). The players take turns tossing. Once a player is able to get on the board, the game begins and the player is allowed to place one of the game markers from the queue onto the starting square of the game board.
The game mat had 52 squares arranged in an “X” shape. The game board could be drawn on a bit of leather or on a straw mat and decorated with dye, or carved into the floor or table top.
The four landing positions in the middle of the X are a special area. A player who lands a marker on the opponent’s marker in this area can remove the opponent’s marker from the game board and put it back into the opponent’s starting queue. The opponent is then required to transfer ownership of one of the items being bet.